Cranbrook Choral Society

A Small Town with a Musical Heart

A History of Cranbrook & District Choral Society

Cranbrook & District Choral Society has evolved over the last 60 years from a WI choir, led by the wife of the local Headmaster, to one of the largest and most popular amateur choral societies in the South East. Mrs Russell-Scott led the ladies of the local Women’s Institute in performing several concerts per year in the early 1950s, and the choir also performed in local choir festivals, where they often achieved commendations from the judges. Indeed, in April 1954, the Cranbrook WI choir were unchallenged in the all-women’s event at the East Sussex and West Kent Musical Festival held in Tunbridge Wells, where they also went on to win the Foster Clark Challenge Cup!

By the late 1950s the choir had expanded its sights to compete in a wider field of categories, so Mrs Russell-Scott invited a “select group” of men from the town to join the ladies for these competitions. One of these men, George Hudson, was still singing tenor in the choir until 2012, and spent several years as Chairman of the Society. The growing popularity of singing in the town led to the formation of Cranbrook Choral Society, which had its first AGM on 23rd May 1961. The committee recommended that the annual subscription be 10s 6d (52p). Local Headcorn GP, Dr Julian Tower, a graduate of King’s College, Cambridge, took over from Mrs Russell-Scott in 1961, and served the choir as its musical director for two periods, from 1961-72 and 74-85. Peter Jezard  (the then Director of Music at Dulwich Preparatory School at Coursehorn) conducted the choir between 1972 and 1974.

In 1963 Cranbrook Choral Society competed in the East Sussex and West Kent Choral Festival. Among the records that survive from this particular festival are two Adjudication Reports by Dr Herbert Howells, one of the leading contemporary choral composers. Of the four pieces performed by the choir in front of Dr Howells, two received Merit and two were awarded Distinction. A press cutting from the Kent & Sussex Courier on 26th April 1963 gives us more insight into the events of the festival:

The Society continued to perform in festivals, and by 1966 had a membership of 37. The Choir was a member of the Kent Region of the National Federation of Music Societies which, that year, performed in Canterbury Cathedral, a year after massing at Tunbridge Wells to celebrate Michael Tippett’s 60th birthday. The composer conducted.

The May 1971 concert performance of Purcell’s King Arthur at Lillesden School, Hawkhurst (later part of Bedgebury School), was notable for two of the soloists, who would later become international stars, Thomas Allen and Philip Langridge (who had been born in Hawkhurst). Thomas Allen’s fee in 1971 was £35. Langridge’s was £40!

Two future international stars, Thomas Allen and Philip Langridge, sitting at the front of the rehearsal for King Arthur in May 1971

Another distinguished artist, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, appeared in 1974 (for £60) as the tenor soloist in Britten’s cantata St Nicholas. Since then many fine singers have appeared with the Society, including John Noble, Michael George, Neil Mackie, Quentin Hayes, Christopher Maltman, Melanie Marshall, Claire Seaton, James Rutherford, Sophie Mansell, Nigel Williams and Louise Winter.


James Rutherford, Malcolm Riley, Louise Winter and Sir Philip Langridge in the Vestry Hall after a successful Dream of Gerontius. All three soloists have sung with the choir on more than one occasion

After several years the Society began to engage an ad hoc group of orchestral players to accompany its concerts. Several leaders are mentioned in programmes of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s: Andrew Jones, Lionel Hardy, Renée Dammers and Reginald Morley. By 1976 Lorna Carpenter was leading the ‘Arcato Chamber Orchestra’. The following year is notable for the first appearance of Priscilla Palmer (leading a performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio). Priscilla continued to lead for many years (occasionally deputized by Judy Hollis, Kathryn Ayers and Susan Ridgeway) until she was succeeded by our current leader, Ingrid Sellschop. In recognition of the loyalty and high standards of playing the Society named its orchestra Cranbrook Sinfonia.

At around this time the Society engaged its first president (from 1969-72), John Leakey, Headmaster of Dulwich Preparatory School. When he moved to Scotland he was succeeded by the former Kent County Music Advisor, Mervyn Bruxner (1899-1973). In 1977 Norman Platt (1920-2004), founder of the much-lamented Kent Opera, served as president for four years. Julian Tower was President upon his retirement to the Lake District. He was succeeded in 1998 by Philip Langridge, the eminent tenor, who held the position until his untimely death in 2010.

The choir continued to perform increasingly complex choral pieces, including all the greats of the repertoire, including Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and Handel’s Alexander’s Feast. A headline in an April 1984 edition of the Courier read that Cranbrook was a “Small Town with a Musical Heart”. In 1985 Julian Tower stood down as conductor, as well as retiring from the medical profession. The baton was handed to Peter Currie, who served until 1987. In that year the Director of Music at Cranbrook School, Malcolm Riley, took over, serving for a quarter of a century  until April 2012, before being succeeded by Jeffrey Gray.

Malcolm Riley led the choir on a tour to Cologne, Germany, in 1996. A group from the choir travelled to Dormagen, just outside Cologne, where it sang with a local choir in the Basilica of Knechsteden. Cranbrook & District Choral Society has also developed ties with several of the leading choral composers around today. In the mid-1990s John Rutter visited Cranbrook (seen below with long-serving tenor Mike Waghorn), and he returned in 2002 to conduct the Society-run Wealden Singing Day, a large event held annually in the early 2000s for local schools, and organised by Suzanne Walters. The Wealden Singing Days were a spectacular success; each year a composer would come and conduct one of their large choral works, with a mixed choir of local schools from the Cranbrook and Maidstone areas, who would also perform an individual selection of shorter pieces. This festival, under the auspices of Cranbrook Choral, was fortunate to attract composers such as Andrew Carter, John Rutter, Bob Chilcott and Ronald Corp. When John Rutter conducted he had a temperature of 103 degrees, and after he went home he didn’t get out of bed again for two weeks!

Mike Waghorn with John Rutter

In recent years many concerts have included an orchestral item (such as Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ Variations) and featured guest instrumentalists. Freddy Kempf, fresh from his success as BBC Young Musician of the Year, accompanied the Society in Beethoven’s Choral Fantasia as well as playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 9. In 2009 Fenella Humphreys was the soloist in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.

The Society has commissioned two choral works; The Pendulum (1974), by Peter Jezard, and De Temporibus Canticum (‘Of the Seasons We Sing’), by Malcolm Riley, first performed as part of the Millenium Celebrations in December 2000. Other world premieres featured at Society concerts have included Malcolm Riley’s Oboe Concerto (with soloist Sheila Marshall), in 1996 and the score for the wartime film Squadron 992 by Walter Leigh.

In April 2012 the society bade farewell to Malcolm Riley with a concert celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. The choir performed Regina coeli K127 by Mozart, Musick’s Jubilee by Andrew Carter, and The Sprig of Thyme by John Rutter, finishing with the choir’s favourite piece of music, Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen by Brahms, as an encore.